“Over tourism” in New Zealand?

Recently reporter Brook Sabin opined about a New Zealand that he says has gone from being a nice little country off the beaten trail to being over touristed mecca that has lost or is in the process of losing its glory. His opinion piece for Stuff detailed a number of festering problem areas in New Zealand, which got me thinking about whether New Zealand is over touristed.

When I was doing Year 13 Geography at school, we had to look at an “economic process” as a class and were given the choice of one of the following: industrialization, tourism and a couple of others. At my school we did tourism. The tourism process focussed on two areas of interest – Queenstown and the Gold Coast. We examined the pull factors such as the mountains and scenery in Queenstown, and the beaches and warm climate on the Gold Coast.

One memory that stands out from the Queenstown segment of this study was being shown a progress chart for the foreseeable future. It showed Queenstown on an accelerating curve up to the end of the 20th Century (given that this was taught in 1999, I think it could be classified as foreseeable future). Once it passed the 20th century the chart showed continued acceleration for a few more years before breaking into four  different potential directions. One suggested growth would just keep on going; a second suggested it would slow down, but not stop completely; a third suggested it was going to flatline indefinitely in the near future from physical limitations and the fourth suggested things would start to run in reverse before very long. I think in 2019, the second possibility is the current front runner followed by the third if we are not careful.

Queenstown has a number of major problems that are increasingly interconnected:

  1. It has used up nearly all of the flat land available to it and is now starting to put pressure on neighbouring places such as Wanaka. In turn Wanaka has gone from being a sleepy town that becomes active during holidays and every second year for the Warbirds over Wanaka airshow to effectively a dormitory suburb of Queenstown. The same goes for Arrowtown, a sleepy picturesque town known for its lovely autumn photography of deciduous trees shedding their leaves.
  2. The rapid growth has not been matched by infrastructure. Queenstown roads, water and sewerage networks are under increasing pressure to the point that Queenstown Lakes District Council recently applied for permission to discharge sewerage directly into Lake Wakatipu, which is half of the overall tourist attraction.
  3. Tourists, tourists, tourists. We need tourists to come and spend money and go home with great memories of a friendly nation, but many attendant problems such as freedom camping, dumping of waste and ignorance of protocol around tourist attractions.

It is not just Queenstown though, that is struggling. Whilst Queenstown has become in some respects a victim of its own success, there are many other tourist attractions as well where the numbers of tourists are reaching problematic levels. One such place is the Tongariro Crossing in the middle of Tongariro National Park/World Heritage Area. Day in day out in all weather, good and bad there is a steady line of tourists snaking across Mordor. Most come prepared and have an idea of what they are getting into, but some come thinking its just a couple hours walk and get stuck. With the tourists also come litter problems, people having to airlifted off because they ignored warnings about track conditions and so on.

Small locations like Franz Josef on the West Coast and Tekapo in inland Canterbury, where the permanent population is only a couple of hundred people struggle with over crowding. Franz Josef has the busiest helipad in New Zealand sending dozens of flights up to the glaciers each day almost from dawn until dusk. Down at the small airstrip near the Waiho River single and twin engined light aircraft are coming and going constantly flying over the glaciers and Mt Cook. Numerous tourist buses trundle through daily, plying the same route. Once a sleepy town at the foot of the Southern Alps, like Wanaka, it is no longer quiet unless the Waiho River has knocked out the bridge.

New Zealand prides itself on its environmental sustainability. Compared with many nations we are comparatively clean and green, but the notion we are 100% pure clean is so wrong, I have actually tried complaining about it being misleading advertising. We are most certainly not 100% pure and the faster that silly campaign ends the better. People coming to New Zealand expend significant carbon just getting here, never what they do once they have arrived. The waste that comes out of rental cars is considerable – food, tourist advertising, abandoned clothing items among other stuff which will fill a skip within a week.

I initially actually thought Mr Sabin was being a pessimist, but unfortunately there is more truth to his words than I think most of us New Zealanders want to admit.




Time to regulate freedom campers

Bex Hill is a tour operator in Dunedin. The other day she saw a people mover turned freedom camper vehicle with a self containment sticker on it. The problem is, it was not self contained.

If there is an issue that divides New Zealand during the summer tourism season, it must surely be what to do about “Freedom Campers”, campers whose transport – often an old Toyota Previa or similar – doubles as their home, and who refuse to camp in regular camping grounds. For many such campers the vehicle is also where they claim to have a toilet, so that they are able to access camping grounds without sanitary facilities.

The majority of them are no problem and will comply with requests. However it needs to be said that there will always be a small percentage for whom no amount reasoning will work – they think that by some higher entitlement they can be in a particular place and do as they wish. New Zealand, contrary to popular belief – does have minimum standards for self containment in vehicles – they just are not that well known or enforced. They are set out in full below (see New Zealand Motor Caravan Association):


The Standard requires sanitary, safe installations:

  1. Fresh water tanks: 4 L per person per day (12 L per person minimum); eg. 24 litres is required for 2 people for 3 days & 48 litres is required for 4 people for 3 days;

  2. A sink: (via a smell trap/water trap connected to a water tight sealed waste water tank;

  3. Grey/black waste water tank: 4 L per person per day (12 L per person minimum, vented and monitored if capacity is less than the fresh water tank);

  4. Evacuation hose: (3 m for fitted tanks) or long enough to connect to a sealed portable tank;

  5. Sealable refuse container (rubbish bin with a lid).

  6. Toilet (portable or fixed): Minimum capacity 1 L per person per day (3 L net holding tank capacity per person minimum);

A portable toilet must be adequately restrained or secured when travelling. The portable toilet shall be usable within the motor caravan or caravan, including sufficient head and elbow room whenever required, even with the bed made up.  Where permanent toilets are installed, this shall be in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and comply with the sanitary requirements in section 3 of the Standard (plumbing requirements).

When these conditions are met, a portable toilet may be used externally e.g. within a toilet tent or awning, where it is appropriate and convenient to do so.

I had time for them, but now my patience – and I think that of many many New Zealanders – is running out. It is time to regulate their vehicles as being supposedly fit for over nighting in places where camping is generally forbidden is often not what one thinks it is. Far too often we now hear of campers becoming aggressive when challenged about the suitability of their vehicle to be parked in a non camping area. Far too often we find freedom campers parked in parts of towns and rural areas where they should not be.

Aside from being disgusting and unsightly in the extreme to see other peoples faeces, it is a particularly poor look on the part of a country that prides itself on being clean and green. Yes everyone needs to answer a call of nature at some point and that there will most certainly be cases where it cannot be done in a proper toilet.

Is it inappropriate to remind them that they are in New Zealand and are therefore expected to comply with New Zealand law (which admittedly needs to be clarified and tightened up, but that is beyond the scope of this article)? I think not. When other campers cannot get access to a particular site because it is blocked and the campers are aggressive, whose fault is that?

I do not believe I am being unnecessarily harsh when I say that the only vehicles that should be permitted for this purpose should have an enforceable certificate of self containment. But before we do that, there has to be a regime with appropriate agencies involved and a way of making the enforcement stick. This will require the co-operation of rental car and other rental vehicle agencies, the N.Z.T.A. and local councils.

Then, may be people like Bex Hill will not have to see such sights again.

Lake Wakatipu e-coli scare symptomatic of bigger problem

A few days ago there was a report about the dying aquatic ecosystem in Lake Wakatipu, which is the water playground of Queenstown, the lake whose waters the steamer T.S.S. Earnslaw travels laden with tourists seeking a farming experience and the lake which feeds the Kawarau River. Whilst all might have seemed fine to tourists, Queenstown locals are aware of a growing problem with the fresh water quality.

In late 2017, just before Christmas, Otago Regional Council announced tests were being done for E-Coli, after it was found in Frankton Bay, which is very popular with tourists and locals as Queenstown’s water front. In March 2018 further concerns were raised about E-coli in Lake Wakatipu after high levels were again found. Now, days after a damning report into the state of the Lake Wakatipu ecosystem was released, there is another E-coli alert. Before we look at the critical factors in fresh water quality, it is important to know the role of E-coli.

E-coli is an important bacteria in ones intestine as it helps produce Vitamin K and prevent colonisation by disease causing bacteria. However it has two strains that are problematic to humans, called STEC and VTEC. The latter is not so common as STEC, which causes the vast majority of E-coli related health alerts in New Zealand. Most STEC cases in New Zealand stem from instances of people being in farm environments, drinking untreated water or consuming unpasteurized milk.

E-coli is just one problem afflicting Lake Wakatipu though.

It is important to note a host of other sources including:

  1. freedom campers,
  2. a major increase in tourism,
  3. industrial area run off that has not been adequately treated and
  4. a possibly unsustainable growth in the population around Queenstown.

Queenstown’s infrastructure struggles to handle the fluctuations from Summer to Winter in population and the resultant demands placed on it. The rate payer base are often business and property owners as many locals find it too difficult to live in a town where rent sometimes swallows their entire pay, and where many of the day to day population are transient people who are on work visas and will only be around for a few weeks to a few months before moving on. All of this limits Queenstown’s choices for infrastructure that can cope. Whilst Queenstown struggles to afford appropriate infrastructure, pollutants will continue entering the lake from sources that should be better contained.

Freedom campers are generally people looking to travel New Zealand whilst spending as little time as possible in official camping grounds. They often park in places where camping is not permitted and do not always dispose of rubbish properly.

The rapid growth of tourism in New Zealand over the last few years has become unsustainable in many respects. From a huge growth in the rental car industry and the associated increase in rental vehicles on the road, through to problems with rubbish, demands on infrastructure and a reluctance among politicians to introduce fiscal or other measures to address the problem, all of these factors are combining to cause a major headache.

With Queenstown’s growth, associated light industry has been established to support the town’s economy. However with that growth industry there does not appear to have been a matching growth in efforts to contain “grey water”, which is a nick name for storm water and industrial runoff. This winds up in streams, of which Queenstown has several nicely landscaped ones running through the town, which wind up in Lake Wakatipu.

But the biggest problem facing Lake Wakatipu might actually be Queenstown itself. Constrained as it is by its geographical features, Queenstown is spreading into side valleys and along Lake Wakatipu. In an attempt to keep the town from stagnating new developments are popping up in all directions. Nearby locations such as Arrowtown and Wanaka are becoming dormitory suburbs of Queenstown. With this growth comes an increase in artificial land cover that acts as a surface to collect pollutants; an ever more constrained infrastructure network, to say nothing of more tourists as the towns reputation grows.

Good for the economy. Crap for the environment, which ultimately as one of Queenstown’s biggest draw cards, might be crap for the economy.

Do you see a nasty cycle here?

Tourist summer season begins: You know the drill

So, it is that time of year again, when the tourist hordes escaping the northern hemisphere winter come to our shores again.

Whilst the weather might not be fully aboard in the same way it was last year – hot, fine weather throughout the traditional summer months until February (more on that later) – the tourist summer season has begun.

Not all tourists will be familiar with what New Zealanders expect of them on the roads, in public or private establishments. Obviously not all from non-English speaking nations are going to be able to speak fluent English and some will only have a rudimentary knowledge.

Be patient. The fact that they have made an effort to come this far is commendable in its own right. If they are at a site of significance and appear not to be obeying any ground rules, politely point it out to them; if they are going too slowly or driving dangerously, contact the Police bad driving number and tell them what is going on. Taking matters into ones own hands just risks aggravating the situation.

Be polite. A tourist is a visitor to our nation. They will no doubt be asked by family and friends when they get back to their country of origin how it was and what the locals were like. And those stories will get around if the audiences judge the answers to be memorable. If they say “New Zealanders are nice people, friendly and helpful”, it will help bring more tourists to our shores for the right reasons.

Be helpful. I know it is simple, but it is pretty fundamental. Tourists, love them or loathe them, remember how we treat them, just as we remember how they treat us.

The weather may or may not co-operate. If it is anything like it was earlier this year, it could be very hit and miss. We went from having a stunning hot December and January to having two tropical cyclones – Fehi and Gita – go past in three weeks. It causes enough trouble if you are a local, but for a tourist it might help determine for better or for worse how New Zealand is remembered. They will not necessarily know about the impending bad weather when going somewhere – make sure tourists know in case they are going into the back country as you just might save the taxpayer a few thousands dollars preventing an avoidable rescue off a mountain.

And remember if there are heaps of tourists coming to your favourite spot and you cannot get in, they are just coming for a holiday and because we have afforded them the opportunity by developing economic relations with their country. The vast majority of them will be just fine and will probably co-operate if you are reasonable with them. Just remember we visit some places in large numbers as well and contribute to equivalent issues such as rubbish, bad driving and so forth.

As for the infrastructure issues that we have, that is why the local government elections every three years are important. So are the opportunities to make submissions on council plans and submit evidence in person before a hearing, and if you are really determined to make something happen, stand for them when the opportunity arises.

So, to cut a long story short, be friendly and helpful to the tourists coming here. Depending on the circumstances in which you meet them, it might save you as much grief as it saves them.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Tourism – Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

Singapore, on the other hand is a study of quite a different nature to the European countries. As a modern city state occupying a land mass of 723km² it is limited in what it can have in terms of industries.

Thus Singapore has under Lee Kew Yuan and his successors become a substantial tourist based economy.

As a tourist power, Singapore does very well. It has a number of factors at play that make visiting it an attractive proposition to tourists.

It’s warm tropical climate with temperatures consistently 23-32 the whole time I was there is kept in check by convective storms that develop over inland areas or the Malaysian peninsula and typically peak between 1400-1900 each day. The reliable rain enables a lush green canopy of tropical vegetation. It also enables a range of tropical bird and reptile life to thrive including monitor lizards. This has been recognized by the local wildlife parks.

Singapore has a range of tourist attractions. Fort Canning and the Battlebox, where British General Archibald Percival conducted the biggest capitulation in British military history is one. Whilst Fort Canning is open, the Battlebox is a guided tour whose reservations fill up most days. Marina Bays has the popular floating roof top bar that sits on three separate buildings

If one likes cuisine, Singapore has a full range of culinary delights including a Michelin 1-Star Hawker Chan restaurant. Along the Singapore River there are a number of restaurants with open air decks looking across the river, which serve a range of dishes. I was not there long enough to get a really good look at all of what was on offer.

One of the things that makes Singapore so popular with tourists is the perception of being very safe. This is largely true in terms of crime as Singapore’s non tolerance of drugs, murder and other serious crime mean the death penalty is applicable. Singapore in 2016 had a murder rate of just 0.32 people per 100,000. And in terms of ones own perception of safety, granted I did not venture out at night whilst there.

As for cleanliness, Singapore has low tolerance of dumping of rubbish. I saw no dumping of goods anywhere. The city has universal water supply and a combination of policy, education and legal framework helps oversee this. Given its love of telecommunications, Singapore could in the future develop e-waste recycling as another industry since per thousand people it has one of the highest connection rates in the world. It has the know how, the education system and legal framework potentially there, and it would further enhance its environmentally responsible reputation on which its ability to be a tourist power sits.

I have in the past promoted biofuel as a fuel source whilst writing about New Zealand. I have done that on the understanding that economics might not permit such activity here on a large scale as it would in a densely populated area like Singapore. However one way of helping Singapore maintain an environmentally responsible reputation, in a two fold manner, thereby helping protect the attractive tropical environment that lures so many people to the city state, would be collecting the waste cooking oil as the basis of a biofuel blend. With only quite limited room for refuse facilities, it would make sense to examine what can be taken out of the waste stream.

Singapore has a bright future. I enjoyed my time there and will be going back at some point. Other countries with small landmasses and dense populations can look at how Singapore achieved what it has and perhaps try to replicate it.

Except maybe the death penalty. I don’t endorse that.